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Opinion: As the Heat Rises, Virginia's Political Leaders Continue to Sleep on Climate Change

The years 2016, 2015 and 2014 were the hottest on record around the planet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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Let’s say you’re inclined to think that the whole climate-change conversation is, OK, overheated. It’s been a swelter out there, but so what? It’s on the hot side of summer in Virginia, right? Give me a minute, just the same, to make the case that it’s way past time to get a lot more serious about Virginia’s climate future.

This threat is not distant in space or time. It’s immediate, and right here in the Richmond area. If the trend continues as it has since 1977, it will surpass 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by around midcentury, according to the University of Virginia Climatology Office. Your grandkids will be right in the middle of it. Worldwide, that much heat has been characterized as “could be dangerous” by climate scientists. It gets hotter from then on.

Sixty percent of Virginia is forested. As the heat trend continues, we risk losing huge expanses of those forests to fires and heat-spiked insect populations. That’s already happening in Western states.

You also can see that troubled horizon in projections made by climate physicists Katharine Hayhoe and Sharmistha Swain of Texas Tech University. On average each year, the Richmond area saw about 36 days that were 90 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, during the last three decades of the 20th century. But climate disruption will make that 99 days by around the year 2065. That means we’ll be living with about 14 weeks of stifling heat, the projections suggest — but only if the world continues to use the atmosphere as an open sewer for greenhouse gas emissions from electric power plants, car exhausts and burning forests. That’s called the “business as usual” scenario.

Looked at another way, Virginia’s climate will be something like South Carolina’s by midcentury, and something like Louisiana’s or Alabama’s by the end of the century. If the world works very hard, very quickly, on the greenhouse gas problem, climate change could slow. It could level off by 2100.

Virginia Democrats and Republicans have a serious case of the slows, though, perhaps hoping the problem will just go away. Maybe that’s explained, in part, by where much of their campaign money comes from: fossil fuel corporations Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. Ask your current political representatives, or candidates in the upcoming elections, why that is and what they’ll do about it. Compared to other states, Virginia is failing to push for rapid conversion to solar power and other renewable energy sources, aggressive fuel economy requirements for cars, and planning for the changes we will face.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has told the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to propose regulations to reduce carbon pollution at power plants — but not until just before he leaves office in January, and with no set goals for those cuts. He took office in — what was it? — oh, yeah, January 2014. Republicans, predictably, condemned the governor’s new move as “overreach” that will slow economic growth. Zzzzz.

Already in the state’s most populous area, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, has chronic flooding — about half of it the result of sea level rise from record melting of Earth’s ice caps. Our coastal waters could be about 1.5 feet higher sometime between 2030 and 2050, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. That’s enough to drown several billion dollars’ worth of commercial and residential real estate, dozens of miles of highways and rails, and a third of our port facilities.

Even more irreparably, it will mean the potential loss of Virginia’s wetlands. They support a couple of dozen kinds of commercially valuable fish and innumerable wildlife species.

In our legislature, though, climate disruption isn’t about science. It’s about what’s expedient, or for some, it’s a kind of political religion. That will change, of course, as the disruption accelerates. No political leader who doesn’t respond to a threat of this scale and intensity will be electable. But the longer we take to engage with reality, the steeper our losses will be. Ask your state delegates and senators, and candidates running for state offices this fall: What’s the plan?

The years 2016, 2015 and 2014 were the hottest on record around the planet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. How long will any political party be able to stay in denial? S

Stephen Nash is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever — How Climate Change Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests,” from the University of Virginia Press. virginiaclimatefever.com. It won the American Institute of Physics 2015 Science Writing Award for books.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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